The Most Mortifying Moment Of My Teaching Career — And What I Learned From It

The most mortifying moment of my teaching career, and what I learned from it.

Someone who’s taught for 11 years should have everything down to a science, right?

Nope.

My 11th year of teaching might have been my worst.

I had an excellent group of 5th graders.  I had a supportive team of teachers.  I had zero excuses every time I looked at my class data and saw meager (at best) learning gains.  In January, a veteran teacher walked into my room to pick up a student.  She was in my room about 30 seconds before she said:

“These kids aren’t working for you.”

It was the most mortifying moment of my teaching career.

Teachers get lots of negative feedback.  During my previous 11 years, several administrators lectured me about incorrect common boards, teaching one subject when my schedule said I should be teaching another, and not teaching the exact same thing as my teammates.  I’m pretty good about letting pointless criticism roll off me.

This was different.

“These kids aren’t working for you.”

I could not let that roll off me because I knew it was 100% true.

I can’t describe how much those words stung.  I felt embarrassed that another teacher saw how ineffective I was.  I felt angry at her for saying this.  Then I felt angry at myself for letting my students down.  Finally, I felt overwhelmed because it’s not something I could fix in one day.

After my emotions settled, I realized had never thoroughly reflected on how to be a better teacher.  That needed to change.

Here’s what I did.

First, I had to accept responsibility for this.  I couldn’t make excuses about my students, their parents, my administrators, testing, or anything else.

Next, I had to figure out a time to think about solutions.  So instead of listening to ESPN radio during my 45-minute drive home, I thought about everything that happened in my classroom that day.  I’d replay the day in my mind until I could remember two things that went well and one thing that didn’t.  I analyzed the good things until I thought of how it could help in the future.  I also analyzed the bad so I could prevent it from happening again.

Thankfully, I had an awesome team of teachers and administrative coaches that year.  I asked them for advice about how they motivate their students.  There are tons of awesome Facebook groups where you can get excellent advice, but I still recommend talking to other teachers at your school.

I also wanted to observe other teachers, but there was no time for that.  The best way struggling teachers can learn is by watching awesome teachers in action.  I wish districts allowed more time for this to happen, but that’s impossible when every day of planning time is full of meetings.

So after a lot of reflection, I realized:

I was drowning in all the fifth-grade standards.

There were several times that year when students corrected me during math class.  These students were not being rude.  They were respectful, bright young kids who wanted me to know that I was working a problem incorrectly.  I’m sure this caused students to lose confidence in me.  I realized I needed to take staff-development courses in math during the summer or persuade my principal to let us departmentalize.  Thankfully, my principal allowed us to departmentalize the next year!  I got to teach science, so I spent the summer researching science standards, labs to teach those standards, and how students would be assessed on them.  It took a ton of communication with my team during the summer to organize our first year of departmentalization, but it was worth it.  I finally felt like I could breathe again since I could focus on one subject.

If you’re an upper-elementary teacher who feels like you’re drowning in all the standards, I highly recommend departmentalizing.  You can check out my blog post here to learn why this revitalized my desire to teach.

It’s not about me.

I also realized I was too controlling.  I hate when administrators micromanage me, but I realized I was doing the same to my students.  I sapped all the joy out of reading class by requiring my students to use 1,352 strategies on every reading passage.  If they only used 1,349 of those strategies, I’d make them do the assignment over again.

I also spent way too much time telling my students how to do everything instead of letting them discover new concepts on their own.  I allowed them little time to learn from each other.

So I spent the first week of my 12th year showing my students how to work in groups.  I also covered classroom rules and procedures, but I focused on teamwork.  I told my students they were going to learn a lot from each other.  I looked for activities where kids worked together to deepen their knowledge about a topic.  I spoke to the whole class much less often.

The more I got out of the way, the more my students learned.

Allow students to learn from their mistakes.

I realized I was way too critical of small mistakes.  I’m not talking about the times a student willingly disobeyed me, I’m talking about conversations like this:

ME:  HOW could you confuse area and perimeter?!  I told you three times during class today that area is L x W while perimeter is the sum of all the sides.  THREE TIMES?!  How could you get this wrong?  Are you even listening?

Student:  Yeah, I just forgot.

Me:  Do 10 extra problems for homework and you’d better start listening in class!

Surprise…conversations like that didn’t exactly motivate my students.

Yes, it’s frustrating when students make the same mistake over and over again.  However, I realized I needed to change the tone of my conversation to something like this:

Me:  You keep confusing area and perimeter.  Why do you think that happens?

Student:  It’s hard.  I can’t remember it.

Me:  True, but you are responsible for remembering it.  What could you do to help you remember this?

Student:  I dunno.

Me:  Apparently you need to spend a few more minutes thinking of a solution.  Go back to your seat.  I will be back in five minutes and I will listen to your plan of how you will remember the difference between area and perimeter in the future.

My students responded way better when I changed my tone during these conversations to let them know I want to help them improve, not punish them for making mistakes.

Take time to laugh.

I realized I was so focused on keeping up with the pacing guide that I rarely took time to have fun during the day.  No one can be expected to work for seven straight hours.  So I started making corny jokes way more often.  I’d show a dumb 40-second YouTube video in the middle of class.  I’d allow the kids five minutes of free time at the end of class when they worked hard.  Sometimes I dumped candy on each kid’s desk while they were in the middle working on a difficult project.  Other days I’d surprise the kids with a fun STEM or team-building activity when we needed a break from the standard we had been working on for the last five days.  I needed these breaks as much as the students.

My 12th year of teaching was far from perfect, but it was much better than the year before.  My students made awesome learning gains.  I had a much better attitude about teaching every day.  There was even a teacher who observed my class and said,

“Wow, your students are really engaged.”

I knew it was 100% true.

 

 

Disengage from Negative Conversations. You Know You Need To. Here’s How.

3 tips that will help you have more productive conversations with your coworkers at school.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard these phrases at your school.

“Why can’t those third-grade teachers teach their kids how to….”

“My principal is so disorganized!  She never….”

“All teachers do is complain about…”

Everyone who works at a school faces many challenges every day.

We should not make our coworkers one of them.

I know this because I’ve done it far too often.

One day, I complained that my fifth-grade students didn’t know much about plants.  I moaned about how much time it would take me to review basic information about plants, which were third-grade standards in my state.

“WHY didn’t those third-grade teachers cover that skill like they were supposed to!?”

Later that evening, I remembered that I taught third grade for nine years before moving to fifth grade.

When I taught third grade, did I intentionally refuse to teach certain science standards so fifth-grade teachers would have a more difficult job?

No, of course not!

When I taught third grade, I did the best I could — just like 95% of the other adults in your school.

I had wasted five minutes of my day complaining about teachers at my school who were trying their best.  I also caused the teacher listening to me to waste five minutes of her time too.

I reflected on more conversations where I complained about my coworkers.  I realized most of those conversations had an, “Us Versus Them” mentality.  I’ve been involved in far too many conversations where the topic was:

teachers vs. administrators

upper-grade teachers vs. lower-grade teachers

teachers vs. parents

administrators vs. parents

school staff vs. students

everyone vs. district officials

What would schools be like if those conversations involved the word “AND” instead of the word “VERSUS?”

What would schools be like if those conversations focused on SOLUTIONS instead of PROBLEMS?

This is easier said than done.

Teachers are amazing because they are so passionate about their students.  If another adult’s mistake got in the way of my students’ success, my passion often turned into anger.  In the heat of the moment, I viewed that adult’s mistake as an intentional act to hinder my ability to help my students.

How foolish does THAT sound?!

I made three major shifts in my attitude that helped me stop complaining about my coworkers as often.  I still complained more than I’d have liked, but overall, I engaged in more productive conversations when I kept these three things in mind.

Assume positive intent.

Most of your coworkers want every child to succeed — just like you.

Most of your coworkers are trying their best — just like you.

Most of your coworkers make lots of mistakes every day — just like you.

(You can substitute the word “parents” for “coworkers” in these statements.  You could also argue that parents are your coworkers because most parents want their child to succeed just as much as you.)

Complaining is easy, but it accomplishes nothing.  Think of solutions instead.

There are definitely times when teachers need to vent, but you need to be sure you focus on solving problems instead of just complaining about them.

It was easy for me to complain about third-grade teachers.  It would have been way more helpful for me to see how I could support them in teaching science.

It was easy for me to complain about parents when homework didn’t get turned in.  It would have been way more helpful for me to have a conversation with them and learn about what’s going on at home.  I should learn how I could help while also ensuring the child is mastering content in my class.

Talk to people.

Teachers have such little time to talk to each other.  That’s a massive problem in schools.  Too much information is communicated in emails instead of face-to-face conversations.

If you feel like students aren’t coming to your grade with adequate background knowledge, schedule times to talk to lower-grade teachers.  Professionally address the problem.  Ensure the other teachers know you want to help, not complain about them.

I’m not saying that every conversation has to be 100% positive.  Just try to be more intentional about addressing problems instead of complaining about them.

If I can do that, my kids are more likely to come to my class knowing the characteristics of plants.

**I understand there are times when teachers have complicated problems with another coworker.  I realize it’s impossible to get along with everyone at all times.  The goal of this blog post is to help teachers think about the number of times they participate in pointless, negative conversations about a coworker.  My goal is NOT to tell teachers to just “get over it” when they have a complicated, serious problem with another adult at their school.

 

Tips for Introverted Teachers

Tips for Introverted Teachers

How did an introverted person like me end up teaching?

I love working with kids, but teaching involves SO…MUCH…TALKING!!  Nothing prepared me for how tired I felt at the end of every day.  If you’re an introvert like me, I’d like to share some things you can do before, during, and after school to help you have a bit more energy at the end of every day.

This started when I took a few personality tests after my 5th year of teaching.  (Click here to take a free personality test.)  For one of the tests, I scored off the charts for the degree to which I am introverted.  I always knew I wasn’t much of a talker, but I didn’t realize that talking all day drained me to such a high degree.  So I started thinking of ways I could lessen the amount of energy I used at school.

(Before I go on, I’d like to clarify that EVERY teacher is tired EVERY day.  Teaching is exhausting work for everyone.  However, introverted people need to do some things differently to recover after a tough day.  Going out with a group of friends after school is a great way for some teachers to recharge.  For me, that would be the WORST thing I could do!)

Here are some things that I did before, during, and after school that benefitted my students and my energy level.  I was still tired at the end of every day.  However, I was not 100% drained when I got home.  If you’re an introverted teacher like me, I hope some of these ideas can be helpful.  For more information on each of these tips, please continue reading below.

Tips for Introverted Teachers

Before You Arrive At School

Make Time for Peace and Quiet at Home Before You Leave

Waking up earlier gave me extra time that I could sit alone in peace and quiet before I left home.  It was not fun setting my alarm earlier, but I loved having about 20 minutes of complete silence before I left for school.

Arrive at School Early

I arrived at school about 90 minutes before kids came into my room.  It was not fun waking up early enough to do this, but it was fun being one of the few teachers in the building.  I could go straight to my room and begin working in complete silence.  There wasn’t anyone stopping me for a conversation.  I could usually get a solid 30 minutes of work done in complete silence before teachers, parents, administrators, or students needed to talk to me.

I understand this can be challenging if you have kids in daycare or other family commitments, but I hope you can get some quiet time in the morning before kids arrive in your room.

At School

I started viewing myself as a facilitator of knowledge instead of the direct source of knowledge in my classroom.  My goal was to design learning activities that allowed students to discover new concepts on their own instead of me directly telling them what they need to know.

This meant students were going to make mistakes and I would have to help them learn from those mistakes.  It’s difficult to explain, but I felt like this attitude adjustment took a tremendous amount of the spotlight off me, which helped me use less energy at school.  There were some lessons that required me teaching in front of the whole class, but I tried to keep those to a minimum.

Here are a few ways I put this into action.

Talk Less.  Smile More.

(Sorry, I couldn’t help using a line from Hamilton!)

After I realized I was extremely introverted, one of the first things I noticed was how often I talked to my entire class.  Lecturing 25 elementary students was not good for the kids.  Being “on” in front of 25 kids for extended periods of time was not good for me either.

So I planned more collaborative activities for my students.  If I noticed I was speaking to the class too long, I gave the students a few minutes to discuss what we were learning about or how they felt about it.  If I needed a few moments of silence, I asked my students to take five minutes and write a response to the concepts we were learning.  When your administrators walk in, they WANT to see your students collaborating and reflecting on what they’re learning!  Use this to your advantage.  I still talked to kids while they worked in groups, but helping students in a small-group setting was much less exhausting than doing so in front of the whole class.

STEM Activities

The room could get a bit noisy as students worked in groups to complete STEM activities.  However, students learn on a much deeper level when they experience the concepts as opposed to me talking about them.  Since I’m an introvert, I used this to my advantage.  It can take a while to prepare resources, but it was so rewarding to see kids learn science concepts without me having to say much.  After the activity, I had kids make a t-chart with “CLAIMS” on one side and “EVIDENCE” on the other based on the activity they just completed.   Then the groups presented their charts and discussed important ideas.  My main job was to keep everyone on task, teach groups how to work together, and clarify any misconceptions.  After class, I skimmed exit slips to gauge my students’ understanding to see what degree of reteaching they needed.

Use Technology

I loved using short videos during my lesson.  It helped reinforce the concepts I was teaching, plus it gave me a few minutes of down time.  I was lucky to have access to Brainpop and Discovery Education most of the years I taught.

Independent Reading Time

I also gave kids time to read.  I got marked down on informal observations every time an administrator walked in my room during this, but there were times when I needed 10-15 minutes of silence.  I refused to teach in fear of my principal walking into my room and marking me down.  I’m also not one of those teachers who thinks reading independently is a waste of time.

After School

Sit in Your Car Alone

The atmosphere of a school after dismissal is not kind to an introvert who needs silence to recharge.  There were always parent conferences or things I needed to discuss with other teachers.  I never felt like I could get much work done immediately after school, especially since I was so tired.  So I usually left school about 30 minutes after dismissal.

Once I left school, it helped me to be alone for around 30-45 minutes before I got home.  Sometimes I bought a coffee then drank it in my car in the parking lot.  Sometimes I just pulled over and sat in my car in complete silence for 15 minutes.  Some days I took a longer way home, which gave me some extra time alone.  At first, I felt guilty getting home to my family a little later.  However, those extra minutes of being alone helped me regain a bit more energy before I got home.

If you have to rush home immediately after school, I hope you can block off an extended amount of time every evening to be alone.

Be Honest with Your Family

Since I left school soon after dismissal, I often took work home with me.  (I understand that’s not ideal and I hope you are able to avoid it.)

I tried my best to clearly communicate with my wife about how much work I needed to accomplish at home.  I recommend texting your spouse something like this before you get home: “I have 30 minutes of work that I need to get done tonight.  When would be the best time for me to do that?”  I realize taking work home is not ideal, but I was much more productive working at home as opposed to staying after school.   I think it would have taken me an hour after school to accomplish what I could do during 20 minutes at home because that alone time after school was so good for me.

If you’re an introverted teacher, I hope you can find ways to get time alone after every school day.  If you have a family at home, tell them that it’s important that you get a few minutes to yourself in the evening.  It takes tremendous energy to teach every day.  Please do a few things to recharge yourself so you can better help your students and take care of your health.

That’s how an introverted person can continue teaching.

A Book That Will Help Students Learn Why They Should Speak Out Against Hate

I’m writing this a few days after white supremacists marched around Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting horrible things.  Thankfully, I’ve seen many teachers post messages on Facebook saying they will help their students understand the importance of speaking up against white supremacists and the hate they stand for.  One of my favorite posts was written by Love, Teach which said,

#1 teaching objective in my class this year: Love is louder than hate, but only if we choose to open our mouths.  Clearly, the rest of my curriculum can wait.”

I have also seen teachers post the importance of using specific vocabulary when describing the events of Charlottesville, like this, by Digital Divide & Conquer.

Use Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry to teach students to speak up against hate.

Teachers can talk about this every day in their classroom, but we all know students learn much better through engaging lessons.  I love using books to teach students important lessons because kids can develop a strong connection to the characters of an awesome book.  Once that connection is made, the lesson you’re trying to teach can be learned much more effectively.

Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry is an excellent book you can use to teach your students about the hatred that white supremacists stand for and the importance of speaking up for people who are oppressed.

The book is set in Mississippi in the 1930s, but it’s important that students realize there are still many people who act like the hateful, racist people they read about in the book.  Curriculum often implies that racism is something that happened a long time ago.  Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry teaches students what it’s like for a black family to constantly be affected by hateful things racist people do.  It’s up to teachers to ensure their students realize this sort of hatred still exists.

Brief Synopsis of the Book

The main character is a young girl named Cassie.  She lives with her three brothers, mother, father, and grandmother.  They are very proud of the fact that they own land.  Cassie’s parents simply want to enjoy their land and take care of their children.  Unfortunately, they constantly hear stories of white people doing horrible things to black people they know.  This causes a lot of tension for the family throughout the book.  By the end of the story, the violence hits close to home for Cassie, whose father is forced to make a drastic decision in order to keep people safe.

Several events in this book are powerful teaching tools to help students understand the importance of speaking out against racism.  

Cassie’s family is amazing.  Your students will develop a strong connection with them.  Cassie experiences many things your students can relate to.  She argues with her siblings, but will do anything to protect them.  She has to help with lots of chores at home, but she loves her family deeply.  She has some difficulties at school, but she wants to get a good education.  It’s impossible for the reader to dislike Cassie’s family.

Since your students will develop a connection to Cassie and her family, your students will also feel the tension of the violence and racism that occurs in the book.  (Sadly, you may have students who can relate to it.)  While this may make students uncomfortable, it opens the door for many teachable moments.  For example:

Event #1:  Early in the book, when Cassie and her siblings are walking to school, a white bus driver swerves toward them and forces them to jump off the road into a muddy ditch to avoid being hit.  Your students need to realize there are still white people who would like to do this to black children.  Also, that bus was full of white students.  Ask your students what they would do if they witnessed something similar today.  Hopefully, they would tell their parents to call a school official and get that bus driver fired.  Teach students that someone on that bus should have spoken up against the bus driver for what he did to Cassie and her siblings.  Students must realize this is NOT Cassie’s responsibility.

Event #2:  In chapter five, Cassie helps her grandmother sell milk and eggs at a town market.  Cassie is angry because they have to set up their stand at the back of the market.  Only white people can sell at the front.  Even though Cassie is angry about this unfair rule, she knows she can’t say anything because someone would hurt her.  Your students need to realize there are still ways that black people are not given the same chances as white people to succeed.  Also, discuss with your students how amazing it would have been for some white people at the market to speak up and say that black people should not be forced to the back.

That’s a theme that keeps occurring throughout the book.  Terrible things happen to black people, but Cassie’s parents feel like saying something will only put their family in danger.  Emphasize the importance of speaking up for people who are the victims of racism.  Be sure your students understand things like this happen today.  Again, that won’t come as a shock to some of your students.

Event #3:  A white girl yells at Cassie for accidentally bumping into her at the market.  The white girl then says horrible things to Cassie.  The girl’s dad grabs Cassie’s arm and starts yelling at her too.  As a crowd starts to gather, Cassie’s grandmother is terrified that things could soon become violent, so she tells Cassie to apologize to the girl.  Cassie is furious that her grandmother made her apologize.  When Cassie gets home and tells her mother about it in chapter six, her mother says, “Baby, you had to grow up a little today.  I wish…well, no matter what I wish.  It happened and you have to accept the fact that in the world outside this house, things are not always as we would have them to be.”  The conversation continues for several pages.  Some of your students probably haven’t been forced to have conversations like this with their parents.  It’s important these students realize that many kids today, including some of their classmates, are forced to have difficult conversations similar to this with their parents.  Based on the Facebook posts I’ve read about conversations black parents must have with their children, too many kids today are forced to “grow up” far too soon.

There are several other events where racist white people do horrible things to the black characters in the story.  Students need to understand that these kinds of things still happen.  It’s also important for students to think about what they’d do if they witnessed something like that.

If you need more resources to teach Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, I have created writing prompts and quizzes that are available in my TpT store.  Click here to learn more.

If you’re looking for more lesson ideas, here are some websites and blog posts that may help.

Teaching Tolerance 

Their website states, “From film kits and lesson plans to the building blocks of a customized Learning Plan—texts, student tasks and teaching strategies—our resources will help you bring relevance, rigor and social emotional learning into your classroom—all for FREE.”

A Collection of Resources for Teaching Social Justice, by the Cult of Pedagogy

In addition to resources, this blog post offers helpful advice for teachers who are planning lessons about social justice.

Social Justice Book List (August 2017) compiled by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year

This PDF gives short descriptions of numerous books sorted by early learning grades, elementary, middle school, and high school.  You can definitely find an awesome book to read on this list.

Words can’t express how grateful I am for all that you do for your students.  Teaching becomes a more important profession every day.  I hope this blog post has given you a few ideas that will help your students understand the importance of speaking up against hateful people.

 

 

 

My Non-Instagramable, Non-Themed Classroom…Where My Students Still Succeeded

I have always been insanely jealous of teachers whose classrooms look like a movie set.  Or teachers who can make their classroom look like a master suite in a $2.5 million home with perfect curtains, perfectly-matched color patterns, and plush furniture.  I’m also jealous of teachers who can pull off a classroom theme and work it into absolutely everything they do all year.  There were many times when my students’ jaws hit the floor when they saw other teachers’ classrooms.  Then they asked, “Mr. Geswein, why don’t you ever make our room look fancy like that!?”

When we returned to class, I explained to my students that everyone has different talents…and my talent is DEFINITELY not designing classrooms!!

If you’re like me, I’d like this blog post to offer some encouragement and ideas because I feel like teachers (especially in elementary grades) put way too much pressure on themselves to have a classroom that looks perfect.

Every year at back-to-school time, I see SO MANY AMAZING CLASSROOMS on social media!  On the flip side, even though they aren’t posting, I know there are teachers who feel insane amounts of pressure to design a classroom that can compete with all the ones they see on Instagram and Facebook.

In any of the 14 years I taught, my classroom would have finished last in ANY classroom design contest.  If you threw a photo of my finished classroom decor in with 50 other classroom photos, there’s absolutely no way I wouldn’t have been in last place.

Here’s are photos of my fifth-grade classroom one year.  It was about 95% ready for the first day (I did eventually put paper over that bulletin board!)

For my first 10 years of teaching, I felt really bad about this.  I felt like I was letting my students down.  Before my 4th year of teaching, I was determined to have the best bulletin board of anyone in the school.  The Dallas Mavericks had just been to the NBA Finals (this is when I taught near Dallas) so I put each of my students’ faces on an image of a Mavericks player dunking a basketball.  Then I had a phrase like “We are going to slam-dunk third grade” above it.  I spent HOURS AND HOURS before the first day of school getting this to look perfect.  Then when it was done, I looked at it and thought “meh.”  On the first day of school, I think 2 or 3 kids said “cool.”  That was it.

About five years later I was reflecting on this.  I realized this ridiculously horrible bulletin board, which I spent a long time beating myself about, had absolutely zero impact on student learning.  I had an amazing year with that group of students.  Several kids made incredible gains in reading and math.  I even managed to get press credentials to take one student to a Dallas Mavericks game as a reporter.  He got to sit in the press box, stand on the court, attend the post-game press conference, get all the in-game stats, and write a story about the game just like a real reporter.  (The Mavs get a BIG shout-out on that one!)  It was an amazing year.

During my final few years, I finally accepted the fact that a photo of my classroom is never going to get many likes on Instagram.  No one would care if I counted down to my classroom reveal and that’s fine because that’s not where my talents are.  So instead, here are the things I focused on preparing before the first day of school to help my students have a successful first week:

Desk Arrangement

Absolutely the first thing I did each year.  I probably arranged my desks 10-15 times until I finally found an arrangement that was best.  I wanted ample room for people to move around EVEN with the chairs pushed out.  All desks needed to be angled to where kids can see the front of the room.  I also needed space for some individual desks when kids need to be isolated.  Then I put tape on the tile floor to mark where each desk should be.  This meant the kids could push them back to exactly where they needed to be at the end of each day.

Classroom Library

It’s extremely important that kids had lots of books to read in my classroom.  After I arranged the desks, I set up my classroom library in a place that was open and accessible.  I arranged my books according to AR level.  I printed stickers with my name and stuck it on the spine of each book.  Then I wrote the AR level and put a sticker on it.  The color of the sticker indicated the range of AR level for that book.  Here’s a photo of a few of those books to show you what the sticker looked like.

Every day at dismissal, I had a few students organize the books in my classroom library.

Prepare and label areas where student supplies would be stored

It was important to me that students had supplies in locations that were consistent and accessible.

Place inspirational posters all around the room

I loved finding inspirational posters online.  That’s one way I added some color to the room, even though it required me to print on my color printer at home.  But I loved referring back to inspirational posters throughout the year.

Tape pictures from National Geographic Magazines on/near my door

I used around 50-70 photos of animals and scenery.  This gives kids something to look at while they’re lined up waiting to leave my room.

Overplan for the first week and prepare all materials!

I can’t imagine something more exhausting than the first week of school.  So instead of spending hours decorating my room, which is not where my talents lie, I spent that time preparing and planning an abundance of activities for the first week of school.  I also knew how exhausted I was going to be during that week and wanted to minimize the amount of prep work after school each day.

I wrote each day’s schedule out to the minute, which is something I didn’t normally do during the rest of the year.  I spent a lot of time thinking which routines and procedures I needed to teach, which order I wanted to teach them in, and how I was going to do so.  My classroom was not going to be the prettiest, but it definitely ranked highly in student engagement and organization.  I had high expectations of myself to establish that during the first week of school.

Get enough butcher paper so STUDENTS can design posters to put on the walls

I think it is important to have a colorful classroom.  I am not suggesting that teachers leave their walls and bulletin boards bare.  No student wants to learn in a room like that.  That’s why I had my students make posters for our walls.

The first few days of school, we brainstormed what it looks like to treat people with respect.  Then my students illustrated those ideas on large sheets of butcher paper, which were then hung on the walls.  Students also made posters to illustrate a few other classroom expectations.  By the end of the week, a good portion of my wall space was covered with student artwork…and it was WAY better than anything I could have come up with.  Plus, it gave my fifth graders a sense of ownership of their classroom.  You’ll notice the walls in my classroom photos are mostly uncovered.  That’s not the case after the first week of school!

Again, I have all the respect in the world for teachers who can design a classroom to look just like Hogwarts.  But I know there are lots of teachers like me whose talents are not in decoration.  I feel bad for teachers in July and August who feel overwhelmed at seeing all these photos of beautiful classrooms because there’s no way they could ever compete with those.  If you have little ability and motivation to decorate like me, I’d encourage you to focus on your strengths.  Not everyone can be an amazing interior decorator!

For example, I realized that my strengths involved organization, designing engaging lessons, utilizing technology, finding quality literature to teach reading standards, and saying corny “jokes” (a big plus for a fifth-grade teacher).  Instead of beating myself up for not designing a beautiful classroom, I eventually realized that my students can learn a lot from me because of the unique talents I bring into the classroom every day.  That, by the way, is the exact same message I told my students — that our classroom is a better place because of the unique talents each of them brings every day.

I’ll leave you with this reminder, which I realized while looking at my classroom before the first day of school one year. (Yes, that’s my classroom in the photo.)

 

4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary and How to Prepare for Them

4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

This is Part Two of my blog post about departmentalizing in upper elementary.  Click here to read Part One, which describes five reasons why departmentalizing benefits teachers and students in upper-elementary grades.

I hope you’ve read Part One of this blog post to learn five huge benefits of departmentalization in upper-elementary school.  My team was departmentalized for two years and I saw many ways it helped students and teachers.  It rejuvenated my desire to teach.  It helped me get to know more kids.  I finally felt knowledgeable about the content I was teaching.

However, if you are considering departmentalizing for your grade level, there are some challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for.

Challenge:  Being the reading teacher

At my school, reading was the subject that administrators scrutinized more closely than any other subject…and it wasn’t even close!  It seemed like several academic coaches on our campus dealt with reading, while one coach was there to support math AND science.  When district officials did walk-throughs, they spent most of their time observing the reading teachers, then sucking them into meetings to provide tons of “constructive feedback.”

One thing you can do about it:  If you are considering departmentalizing in your grade, be sure the teachers who teach reading really love that subject because they are going to bear the brunt of the pressure from administrators.

Before we departmentalized, we had an honest conversation about each teacher’s strengths and weaknesses.   If you are considering departmentalizing, be sure your team discusses which subject area each teacher feels confident in.  Be sure the reading teachers understand they are probably going to feel more pressure from administrators than the people who teach the other subjects.  It’s an extremely important conversation to have.

If teachers are hesitant to teach reading, see if there are things the rest of the team can do to help lighten their load.  I regret not doing more for the reading teachers during the time we departmentalized.  I should have been looking for little things to take off their plate because they got sucked into way more meetings than I did.  (I taught science.)  I could have taken their dismissal duty a few times.  I could have brought their kids back from lunch a few times a week.  I could have brought them coffee once a week.  Anything to let them know that I understand that they, as a reading teacher, were under more pressure than me as the science teacher.

Challenge:  Scheduling

When we departmentalized, each fifth grader rotated among three teachers each day for ELA/SS, Math, and Science.  Each class period was 90 minutes.  I adore making schedules, so I volunteered to create the schedule each year.  Here was our master schedule looked like:

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

(Note:  We used the nicknames of the three closest major colleges as names for each group of students.  We also had early-release on Wednesday, which is why you see different times for that day.)

It was important that each student had an equal amount of time in each class every day.  There were a couple of days when I saw two classes for the full 90 minutes, but one class for 45 minutes due to an unexpected special event that came up at the last second.  All the fifth-grade teachers hated that because it wasn’t fair to that last class that their instruction got cut short.  They had to play catch-up for several days to make up for that lost time.

One thing you can do about it:  It’s important that you have someone who can adapt the schedule and communicate those changes to the team, even if it’s at the last second.  Then when a special event is announced, everyone knows this person will handle creating a new rotation schedule for that day.

While we certainly discussed the schedule as a team, your team needs a go-to person who can quickly change the schedule on those days when an assembly is announced five minutes before the kids arrive.  This person must also be able to clearly communicate these changes with the team.  Your principal is NOT the person for this job!  It should be a member of your team who knows the schedule and how changes are going to impact things for each class.

It’s also important that the other team members respect these changes and go with the flow because there’s not always time to discuss scheduling changes.

Challenge:  Ending class on time

It is imperative that each teacher ends class on time so students can have the full amount of time with their next teacher.  There were a few instances when other teachers had to chat with me because I ended my science class five minutes late.  I explained that we really got into an experiment or cleanup took way longer than I thought.  Guess what?  They didn’t care.  All they cared about was losing five minutes of instruction time with the kids that I kept late.  Plus, this teacher had to stand in the hallway and monitor the kids who were scheduled to be in my room.

I soon realized that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO BE DONE WITH MY LESSON 2-3 MINUTES BEFORE THE CLASS TIME WAS SCHEDULED TO END!  So I set a ton of alarms on my phone to help me stay on schedule.

5 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

One thing you can do about it:  I set an alarm seven minutes before each class was scheduled to end, which gave me time to wrap up my lesson.  Then I had another alarm on my phone go off two minutes before class was scheduled to end so I could have all the kids lined up and ready to get to their next class on time.  You could also have a student who is good with keeping track of time tell you when class is about to end.  Do whatever it takes to get your students to their next class on time because it’s not like middle school where you can ring a bell in the hallway.   Ending your class on time shows you respect the time of the other teachers on your team.

Challenge:  Hallway transitions

NOTHING will shut down a team’s effort to departmentalize faster than students being loud in the hallway while they are switching classes!  Other teachers will quickly grow tired of telling your students to be quiet while they’re trying to teach.  They will not hesitate to go to the principal with these concerns.  Administrators could tell you to stop departmentalizing if they are constantly dealing with kids being sent to the office for fighting or yelling while they are switching classes.

It is extremely important that your students remain quiet while switching classes.  Next year in middle school, they can talk while they change classes.  But not in elementary school.  We told our students there was absolutely no talking while they change classes, even if they have to wait.  They had to wait quietly in a line outside their next teacher’s door until that teacher allows them into their class.

It’s also important for teachers to stand in the hallway during transition times.  Yes, there are a million things you could be doing to prepare for your next class, but we all know that fifth graders are going to try to get away with stuff if they are left unsupervised.  So it’s important to respect the other teachers in your building by keeping your students quiet during transitions.  I have heard of a school where the fifth grade departmentalized at the beginning of the year, but the principal made them stop because there were too many behavior problems when the kids switched classes.

These are just a few of the challenges that you’ll need to prepare for if you plan to departmentalize in elementary school.  There are more that will arise.  It takes a willingness to adapt and be flexible, but I feel like departmentalizing has so many more pros than cons for teachers and students.  If you have questions or would like to share your story about departmentalizing in your school (good or bad), feel free to email me at kgeswein@gmail.com.

Regardless of whether or not departmentalizing would work at your school, I’d like to thank you for all that you do for your students every day!

5 Reasons Why You Should Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons Why You Should Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

My motivation to teach was at an all-time low after my 11th year of teaching.  Few of my lessons were motivating kids to learn.  I was mortified when a paraprofessional walked in my room, shook her head, and said, “These kids are not working hard for you.”  I felt like I was teaching all of my 5th-grade subjects decently, but the standards and tests were always changing and I couldn’t keep up.  I also felt like my kids got restless throughout the day.  I tried to get them out of our tiny portable as often as possible, but doing anything outside in Florida’s humidity is not exactly ideal for learning.  I tried several things to rekindle my desire to teach, but nothing worked.  I felt like I was letting my kids down every day.

Thankfully, during the summer before my 12th year of teaching, someone asked the 5th-grade teachers if we’d be interested in departmentalizing.  At first, it sounded like one more thing being added to my never-ending list of things that change each year.  Then as I thought about it, I realized it could have major benefits for teachers and students.  It would be good for the kids to have a change of atmosphere throughout the day.  It would be a great way for me to master teaching one subject.  I could get to know half of the 5th graders instead of only a fraction of them.  For the first time in a long time, I was excited for the new school year.

We departmentalized for two years and I loved it.  Our fifth-grade team had six teachers.  Students rotated each day among three of them for ELA/SS, math, and science.  I got to teach science!  Each class period was 90 minutes.  This was at a Title I school in central Florida with a large population of ESL kids.

Here’s how it worked with our team of six teachers:

Teacher 1 taught ELA/SS.   Teacher 2 taught math.   Teacher 3 taught science.  Half of the fifth graders rotated among teachers 1-3 each day.

Teacher 4 taught ELA/SS.   Teacher 5 taught Math.  Teacher 6 taught science.  The other half of the fifth-grade students rotated among teachers 4-6 each day.

This is what our master schedule looked like.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

We used the nicknames of the three closest major colleges as names for each of the groups of students we saw.  We also had early-release on Wednesday, which is why you see different times for that day.

Teachers who taught the same subjects planned together.  Our principal was very nice in allowing us to ONLY attend meetings that pertained to our subject area!!

I’m not saying it was easy.  It took a ton of communication, teamwork, and organization.  We certainly did not do this perfectly, which I discuss in a separate blog post (the link is at the end).  I also think it depends on a school’s teachers and students.  I’m sure there are schools where departmentalizing would be a detriment to student learning.

However, in my experience, I feel like my fifth-grade students benefitted tremendously from having three teachers each day.   If you’re thinking about departmentalizing, here are five reasons why you should go for it.

Reason #1:  Kids have more teachers who know them and care about them

One of the teachers on my team did not want to departmentalize at first.  She thought she would not connect as well with her students since she would be seeing them for a shorter amount of time each day.  As the year progressed, she realized this was not the case.  Instead of getting to know 25 students really well, we got to know 75 students really well.   Even though you’re seeing students for less time, you will still build amazing bonds with every student you teach.

Fifth graders act like they are too cool for adults, but in reality, they are still at an age where they crave adult attention.  Departmentalizing was great because each student saw more teachers every day.  Students knew they were going to see three classroom teachers who cared about them every day instead of just one.  I also feel like it reduced the number of behavior problems.  Kids knew that if they misbehaved in one class, their other teachers were going to hear about it.

Reason #2:  You aren’t alone

When a student is struggling, you have other teachers you can talk to who know the student just as well as you.  This was a massive game-changer for me.  I realize that not all students feel 100% comfortable talking to me.  I realize there are times when they may feel more comfortable talking to a female teacher.  So when I saw a student struggling in my class, I could always talk to this student’s other two teachers about how to help him/her.  Usually, one of us had an insight as to why this student was struggling.  Or one of us had a great idea about how to get that student back on track.  It was interesting to see the students who responded to other teachers better than they did for me.  I was so thankful they didn’t have to sit in my class all day for 180 days because something the other teachers did really clicked for them.  Likewise, some students from other teachers did much better for me than their homeroom teacher.

I’ll always remember one student who loved drawing comics under the answers to his bellwork in my science class.  They always involved two characters discussing the bellwork question in a funny way.  He drew this every day on his bellwork!  When I showed his drawings to his ELA and math teachers, they loved it and encouraged him to do the same in their classes as well.  His work below is in response to a bellwork question about characteristics of certain body organs.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize

Reason #3:  Master teaching your subject(s)

I loved teaching three classes of science every day.  I felt like I was finally teaching at a level my students deserved because science was the only subject I had to focus on.  I got to know the standards and test-item specs extremely well.  I found myself looking for science workshops to attend, which was something I never did before departmentalizing.

I was able to help our campus get cool science supplies.  I had the time to research a program called Lego WeDo.  Those involve kids building things with Legos, then writing computer code to program them to move in certain ways.  I was able to do a ton of research on this and persuade my principal to order it for us.  I also learned enough about them so when they arrived, I knew how to help the kids use them effectively.  There’s no way I could have put in the amount of time necessary if I taught all subjects.

I also enjoyed teaching similar lessons three times each day.  In my lesson plans, I included ideas to differentiate the lessons a bit based on the needs of the three groups of kids I saw each day.  If a part of a lesson went poorly during my first class, I loved being able to tweak it so the lessons for my final two classes went better.  It was challenging during science experiments and STEM activities because I had to organize supplies for 75 students instead of just 25.  I definitely had to arrive at school earlier on days when we did experiments with lots of materials.  That required way more prep time.  But remember, I didn’t have to worry about attending meetings for math or ELA.  I didn’t have to come up with materials for reading centers or study the story problems I was teaching in math.  I actually had the time to prepare lessons with depth.

Finally, it was powerful for students to compare notes with the other classes.  I loved making anchor charts like this after we did experiments because it helped the kids talk through the learning that just occurred.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize

Then when we completed the chart, I sometimes showed charts from the other two classes.  We had some amazing discussions about, “Why do you suppose Class A said ______________ while you all said __________________?”

Reason #4:  Prepare students for middle school

In our district, fifth grade was the final year of elementary.  It’s a big adjustment for kids to go from having one classroom teacher every day in fifth grade to having several each day in sixth grade.  Departmentalizing is an outstanding way to help kids feel more comfortable with having more than one classroom teacher each day.  It helps kids learn how to keep track of assignments for multiple teachers.  We spent a lot of time helping our fifth graders learn how to organize their homework agenda so they could easily keep track of their assignments for each class.

At the end of the year, I asked students to reflect on what they liked and did not like about fifth grade.  A couple of kids said having more than one teacher was a bit overwhelming.  But the majority of students said they enjoyed it.  Here are a few kids who said they enjoyed their first year of having more than one classroom teacher.

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

Reason #5:  Test scores went up

For people who need to see data to justify departmentalizing, I had a 19% increase in the number of students who passed the science test the first year I departmentalized compared to the year before when I taught all subjects.  I also saw a dramatic increase in the number of students who scored at the highest level possible.  Reading and math teachers also saw better test scores than the year before.  Although my scores dipped slightly in year two, results were still way better than when I taught all subjects.

If you feel like departmentalizing could work for your students and your school, I hope this blog post has given you some motivation to get the ball rolling on doing so.  However, there are some challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for.  I’ve outlined a few of them in Part Two of this blog post, titled 4 Challenges to Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary.

Unfortunately, research about whether or not departmentalizing increases student achievement is limited, as discussed in this Harvard Education Letter from 2009.  I spent quite a while looking up research before we departmentalized and couldn’t find much.  I also tried to find some research to include in this blog post and again, I couldn’t find any solid data.

With the lack of research, I’ll use my personal experience to say that I strongly believe in the benefits of departmentalization.  During the two years we departmentalized, it helped the teachers as much as the kids at my school.  Please feel free to email me at kgeswein@gmail.com if you have questions or would like to hear more about my experience.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise to advise how exactly you should organize departmentalization at your school, since I don’t know your students or teachers.  But if you have some general questions, I’d love to hear them.  If you have stories of how departmentalization worked for your school, good or bad, feel free to email me too.   Regardless of whether or not departmentalizing would work for you, I want to thank you for all that you do for your students every day!

Resources to Differentiate Reading Centers

I had a love-hate relationship with reading centers when I taught fifth grade.  I loved working with small groups of students.  I loved holding my students accountable for independently completing a list of expected assignments each week.  I hated the expectation from my district that students were supposed to work at centers every day (including the day before breaks) with NO EXCEPTIONS.  I was also told that each center activity needed to be differentiated depending on the reading level of the kids in each group.

I have listened to administrators give endless research about the benefits of kids working at reading centers.  I’ve known plenty of teachers who are so awesome they have center rotations for every subject they teach!  I have no issues with being told to teach centers.

Unfortunately, many teachers are not given the appropriate resources to accomplish this.  Sometimes they aren’t given anything at all.

I was so thankful when my grade departmentalized for two years.  One reason I loved it was because I taught science, so I didn’t have to worry about finding resources for all these differentiated reading centers every week…then having what I did find scrutinized when people walked through the room on a weekly basis.

I know I’m preaching to the choir.  Here’s how I’d like to help.

One of my go-to centers involved kids reading and responding to nonfiction passages.  I imagine many other teachers have a similar center.  So I have written free nonfiction paired texts about famous athletes on a variety of reading levels (grades 1-6) that include quizzes and writing prompts.  This will allow you to provide nonfiction reading materials on the students’ level.  All you have to do is put the passages in different colored folders, depending on the reading level of the kids in that group.   Then tell each group which folder to pull passages from.  This is just one of many ways to facilitate that.

I’ve tried my best to create these passages to look similar, so it won’t be obvious which passages are written on a lower reading level.  I try to avoid giving reading material that looked like it was straight out of a first-grade classroom to my struggling fifth-grade readers.

Middle-school teachers — I’ve also heard from teachers in grades 6-8 who said these were helpful for students who are reading below grade level, but need high-interest reading material that doesn’t look “babyish.”

Each set of paired texts comes with a quiz and writing prompt.  Each set of paired passages compares two famous athletes.  For example, the passages pictured above compare famous NBA players LeBron James and Steph Curry.

If you feel like your kids need a break from answering quiz questions, there are several other ways they could respond to these passages:

–Write a paragraph/essay comparing and contrasting these two athletes.  Compare and contrast how they became famous, what their childhood was like, what they’ve accomplished in their pro career, etc.

–Write a paragraph/essay giving your opinion as to which athlete is better.  Use text evidence to support your opinion.

–You could have also students verbally debate which athlete they think is better.  They could spend their time at the nonfiction reading center writing out facts to support their argument.  Then your entire class, regardless of which group students are in for centers, can debate which athlete they think is better.

–What are some things these two athletes did to become incredible players in their sport?  What did you learn about the importance of working hard from reading about their stories?  (I try to include examples of these athletes working hard in all of my passages!)

Click the images below to download a free set of differentiated passages.  I hope they help make planning for centers a bit easier.

If you need more, I also have differentiated paired texts about athletes in other sports like soccer, gymnastics, swimming, baseball, and more.  Click any of the images below for more information.  These products include three times the number of paired texts as the free products above.

I hope these resources will help you provide reading material that kids love on a reading level that won’t frustrate or bore them.  Thousands of teachers have used my paired texts.  Many have said how much their students love them.

I recently volunteered at a school to help with standardized testing.  I brought a few of my passages for the 3rd graders to read during breaks in testing.  One boy, who said on the first day that he hated reading, literally started dancing in his seat when I gave him reading passages about Ronaldo, who is a famous soccer player.  I’m confident you have students in your class who will feel the same level of excitement if they get to read about famous athletes during reading class.

The Perfect Book for Teaching Growth Mindset

Teaching growth mindset with Hatchet

Hatchet is the perfect book to help students understand the benefits of developing a growth mindset!  The story is about a 13-year-old boy, Brian, who survives a plane crash.  Then through sheer will power and determination, he survives in the wilderness for months until he is rescued.  Reading Brian’s story of survival gives you plenty of ways to teach your students growth mindset because Brian never gives up.  He forces himself to keep trying even when he fails.  The author does a brilliant job of illustrating how Brian talks to himself as he wills himself to accomplish tasks.  Brian is the perfect character for your students to read about as you teach them to develop a growth mindset.

In this blog post, I’ll give you three ways your students can learn why it’s important to develop a growth mindset after reading Hatchet.  After that, you’ll see three discussion topics that you can use with your students after they read Hatchet to reflect upon the growth mindset lessons they learned from Brian that they can apply in their lives.

Growth Mindset Lessons

Brian is never successful at first when he tries something new.  But the harder Brian works to achieve something, the more pride he feels when he accomplishes it.  

Brian finds berries to eat within a few days after crash landing.  Then he figures out how to catch fish.  But nothing compares to the pride he feels when he cooks his first bird and eats delicious meat.  Several chapters give details about Brian building tools to catch animals.  Then he improves those tools over and over again until they work.  In chapter 15, Brian starts craving meat.  So he figures out a way to finally catch birds that he calls “fool birds.”  It takes him a long time to figure out how to catch one.  Brian fails the first several times he tries to catch a fool bird.  But he never gives up.  When he finally catches one to cook, he says the meat tastes better than anything his mother has ever cooked.  Brian feels tremendous pride because he worked so hard to catch it.  The author does a brilliant job of illustrating all the work that went into catching a bird and the immense pride Brian felt when he was eating it.  This is a tremendous example for your students to see that nothing compares to the satisfaction of working hard to accomplish something.

 

Brian is a normal kid, but he learns a lot about surviving in nature because he is willing to learn from his mistakes.

The text is clear that Brian is not a genius or expert outdoorsman.  Brian is used to living in the city.  He had problems doing simple bike repairs before the plane crash.  He survives because he keeps trying to learn new things and realizes that failure is part of learning. In chapter 14, a skunk sneaks into Brian’s shelter at night and steals food.  Brian realizes he was foolish to bury them in the ground where any animal can get it.  After this failure, Brian realizes he needs to store his food in a high place where animals can’t steal it.  He finds a place, then he has to use tree branches to build a ladder for him to reach this place.  Once he has his food out of reach, he feels extremely proud.  He never has any more food stolen for the rest of the book.  It’s an outstanding example of Brian learning from a mistake.  There are MANY scenes like this where Brian fails, then learns from it.

 

Facing problems head-on becomes a habit for Brian.

The story is full of challenges for Brian.  But instead of getting discouraged by them, he always forces himself to think of solutions.  In chapter 16, Brian was attacked by a moose.  Later that night, his shelter was destroyed by a tornado.  But the next morning, Brian started thinking about how he would rebuild his shelter.  He realized he was “tough in the head” because he had gotten so used to facing problems rather than getting discouraged by them.  It had become a part of who he is.  This is an outstanding lesson for your students.  Just like working out can make you stronger physically, forcing yourself to solve problems rather than getting discouraged can make you stronger mentally.

Discussion topics:

In chapter 18, Brian retrieves a huge bag of supplies from the plane that crashed into the lake.  The bag is full of incredible things that will help Brian tremendously.  But the text in chapter 19 said the pack “Gave Brian up and down feelings.”  Why would Brian feel “down” about the contents of this bag?

Possible response:  Brian had spent about two months surviving on his own in the wilderness.  Other than his hatchet, he built everything on his own.  He figured out everything on his own.   These supplies are like a bunch of shortcuts.  Nothing about the last two months has been a shortcut for Brian.  Students may also think Brian is sad that he didn’t have these supplies at first.  But I feel like most of the text evidence suggests that Brian is not fond of using supplies that will make things like hunting, catching fish, and starting fires, a lot easier.

 

At the beginning of chapter 8, Brian is attacked by a porcupine in his sleep.  Besides the pain of the needles in his leg, why does he start crying?  Then what makes Brian realize that crying accomplishes nothing and how does that help him during the rest of the story?

Possible response:  At the end of chapter 7, Brian falls asleep feeling more content than he has since the plane crash.  He has a shelter and he’s full from eating a lot of berries.  But in the middle of the night, a porcupine gets into Brian’s shelter and shoots several sharp needles into Brian’s leg.  The pain is bad, but Brian feels terrible because he hasn’t figured out how to make fire yet.  He wonders what will happen if a larger animal gets into his shelter at night.  Then he feels like he will never be able to survive and starts sobbing uncontrollably.  When he’s done, the text states, “Later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work.  It wasn’t just that it was the wrong thing to do, or that it was considered incorrect.  It was more than that — it didn’t work.”  When Brian had problems later in the book, he didn’t cry.  He just kept thinking and trying new things until he found a solution.

 

After the rescue plane flies away in chapter 12, Brian feels like all hope is lost.  Then in chapter 13, the text states, “In measured time, forty-seven days had passed since the crash.  Forty-two days, he thought, since he had died and been born as the new Brian.”  Summarize what this means.  How has Brian become “the new Brian?”

Possible responses:  The rescue plane came a few days after Brian’s initial crash.  After Brian watched it fly away, he realized no one was coming for him.  He felt incredibly depressed and tried to kill himself.  But he didn’t.  The text states Brian returned to his shelter that night and realized, “He was not the same.  The plane crashing changed him, the disappointment cut him down and made him new.  He was not the same and would never be again like he had been.  That was one of the true things, the new things.  And the other one was that he would not die, he would not let death in again.”  This flashback that Brian has in chapter 13 happened 42 days earlier.  Students could also point to the fact that Brian never even thinks about quitting and never stops until he has figured out a way to accomplish what he sets his mind to.

I have created quizzes and writing prompts to help you teach Hatchet.  The prompts are excellent ways for your students to connect with the events in the book.  The quizzes are a quick way for you to ensure your students are comprehending the story.   Click the image below to see the novel study in my TpT store!

Teaching growth mindset with Hatchet

I hope your students enjoy this book and become more determined to get “tough in the head” just like Brian did!

 

The Key to Extraordinary — A Book That Will Spark Amazing Discussions

The Key to Extraordinary Discussion topics

Be warned:  You will pause many times while you read The Key to Extraordinary to ponder the words that you’ve just read!  I’ve never read a children’s book where I’ve stopped so many times to write down an awesome quote.

In this post, I’ve pulled out 10 excerpts that will lead to incredible discussions, or make excellent writing prompts, that are ideal for students in grades 4-7.  You’ll find PLENTY more as you read The Key to Extraordinary!!  I hope this post encourages you to read the book, which was published in January 2016!

Quick synopsis:  The story is about a 12-year-old girl named Emma whose family owns a business.  When Emma’s grandmother is forced to sell the business, Emma becomes determined to find a way to help keep it in her family.  Emma, like every other woman in her family’s history, has a dream that gives clues as to something extraordinary she will do in her life.  Emma is an extraordinary character, but she doesn’t realize how until the end of the story.

Here are some incredible excerpts for you to discuss with your students.  I’ve included the page number and the character who said it:

“In the eyes of many people, I may never live an extraordinary life.  But I will love in extraordinary ways.  And I hope I choose to always see the best in people.”   Emma, page 225

“Every creature in the world needs to be reminded that they aren’t alone.  That somebody cares about them.  That they have a friend to lead them out of the present mess.”  Emma, page 193

“Every day you live is a day for dreaming.  Every day is a day for adventuring.  And every day is a day for sharing with people you love, because love’s all that lasts.  It’s the only thing we carry out of this world.  It connects us all, in the end.”  Emma, page 224

“I think it’s kind of a cool way to live — to find something to celebrate every day.”  Emma’s friend, Cody Belle, page 111

“Fear is just a flashlight that helps you find your courage.”  Emma, page 42

“I think about how nobody knows how long they have in the world.  And how we only get a certain number of words to say and share.  I’d hate for the last words that come out of my mouth to be mean ones.  I don’t want my words wasted.”  Emma, page 95

“My mama used to say that everybody you meet is a walking, talking broken heart.  Some people put the pieces back together better than others.”  Emma, page 113

“But in the moment Cody Belle told me Earl was missing, I came to an important conclusion:  My treasures weren’t just in the walls of that place.  My treasure was the people I loved.”  Emma, page 190

**You may want to delete the first part of that quote about Earl being missing if your students haven’t read it yet, as it does give away a dramatic event that happens.**

“I learned that courage and fear always come as a pair.  If you’ve got one inside you, you’ve surely got the other.”  Emma, page 200

In chapter 13, Emma reads a relative’s letter.  This relative’s house was burned down by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  The girl was blinded in one eye after the soldiers attacked her.  People wanted the girl to speak about this attack, but here’s how the girl responded:  “They wanted bloody details.  But I talked about forgiveness and family.  I talked about learning to rebuild a farm and a life, even though we started from ashes…sometimes, even doing the right thing will leave you with scars.  But beauty comes from ashes, too.  And I know that to be true.”  Rachel Miller, page 138

Trust me, there are MANY MORE thought-provoking words in Natalie Lloyd’s book!  I have eight more written down, but I didn’t want this post to go on forever!

I’ve created a novel study unit for this book because I want to make it easier for teachers to read The Key to Extraordinary with their class.  The writing prompts give your students more ways to respond to the book, in addition to the excerpts in this blog post.  The quizzes serve as quick comprehension checks after every two chapters.  Click the image below to grab these resources.

Key To Extraordinary Novel Study

I hope your students enjoy discussing what it means to be extraordinary!